Compassion in Epicurean Philosophy

  • I see that Elli commented earlier on Pandora and Hope here: RE: Reverence and Awe In Epicurean Philosophy but it was only a passing comment:


    When you would be able to live among gods, then we will talk about this again. Maybe there is a definite conclusion for living like gods among gods is an utopia. Utopia means that there is not any place in this planet Earth that you can live like gods among gods. Not still now. Hope so, but the Hope, as that myth says, it was the LAST THING in the Pandoras box.

    Other references to hope:

    Why Did Zeus Put Hope In Pandora's Box?

    Why did Zeus put hope in Pandora's Box?
    According to Hesiod, Zeus willed that Hope should stay inside because he wanted mortals to suffer in order to understand that they should not disobey their…

    Hope and Pandora's Box:

    Hope and Pandora’s Box
    Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s water-color of an ambivalent Pandora, 1881 In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first human woman created by the gods. Zeus ordered her…

    Nietzsche - Human, All Too Human:


    HOPE.—Pandora brought the box of ills and opened it. It was the gift of the gods to men, outwardly a beautiful and seductive gift, and called the Casket of Happiness. Out of it flew all the evils, living winged creatures, thence they now circulate and do men injury day and night. One single evil had not yet escaped from the box, and by the will of Zeus Pandora closed the lid and it remained within. Now for ever man has the casket of happiness in his house and thinks he holds a great treasure ; it is at his disposal, he stretches out his hand for it whenever he desires ; for he does not know the box which Pandora brought was the casket of evil, and he believes the ill which remains within to be the greatest blessing, —it is hope. Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives man hope,—in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.

  • As to Pity. I suspect that what is going on here is that there are significant differences between "pity" and "compassion" even though we tend to use them interchangeably - or at least I do myself. After googling I see there are a lot of articles that allege a difference between the two, for example:…tween-compassion-and-pity

    Again, this is all Nietzsche, but I seem to recall (or else this is my memory failing again) there are at least reflections of this in Aristotle:

    “Pity preserves things that are ripe for decline, it defends things that have been disowned and condemned by life, and it gives a depressive and questionable character to life itself by keeping alive an abundance of failures of every type. People have dared to call pity a virtue… people have gone even further, making it into the virtue, the foundation and source of all virtues, - but of course you always have to keep in mind that this was the perspective of a nihilistic philosophy that inscribed the negation of life on its shield. Schopenhauer was right here: pity negates life, it makes life worthy of negation, - pity is the practice of nihilism. Once more: this depressive and contagious instinct runs counter to the instincts that preserve and enhance the value of life: by multiplying misery just as much as by conserving everything miserable, pity is one of the main tools used to increase decadence - pity wins people over to nothingness! … You do not say ‘nothingness’ : instead you say ‘the beyond’; or ‘God’; or ‘the true life’; or nirvana, salvation, blessedness … This innocent rhetoric from the realm of religious-moral idiosyncrasy suddenly appears much less innocent when you see precisely which tendencies are wrapped up inside these sublime words: tendencies hostile to life.”

    ― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ

    Nietzsche on Pity
    Pity…is a depressant. A man loses power when he pities [and when he’s pitied]. Through pity that drain upon strength which suffering works…

    Nietzsche on Pity
    Where are your greatest dangers? ln pity.

    Nietzsche on pity and the death of God
    Christopher asked: Nietzsche is famous for stating that ‘God is dead.’ After reading Zarathustra I felt that what he meant by this statement is that because of…

  • It is only when hope leads to inaction that it is an "evil".

    With the right hopeful attitude we can carry on in life...otherwise difficult times become unbearable if there is no hope for taking action to create change or improve the situation.

  • Pity is looking down at someone and creates an "object" divorced from feeling, whereby we need not do anything to help.

    Compassion is caring and consideration for another in a way that sees the fullness of their humanity. If for some reason, we turn away from the feeling of compassion, then we turn also away from our own self, so that we then lose our ability to be self-compassionate.

  • Pity per JRR Tolkien not Nietzsche:

    Pity + Mercy = Compassion? or something else?

    I have to say I like the "Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends." I don't know whether it's Epicurean or not, but that's some good wordsmithing imho on the part of JRRT.

  • It seems to me that the word "pity" in the past had a different shade of meaning than what it has now, as we can see from Don, in the Tolkien excerpt above.

    Here is an excerpt the end of chapter 2 of "A Few Days in Athens" ...the word pity in the very last sentence.


    [Time] "as he leads us gently onwards in the path of life, demonstrates to us many truths that we never heard in the schools, and some that, hearing there, we found hard to receive. Our knowledge of human life must be acquired by our passage through it; the lessons of the sage are not sufficient to impart it. Our knowledge of men must be acquired by our own study of them; the report of others will never convince us. When you, my son, have seen more of life, and studied more men, you will find, or, at least, I think you will find, that the judgment is not false which makes us lenient to the failings — yea! even to the crimes of our fellows. In youth, we act on the impulse of feeling, and we feel without pausing to judge. An action, vicious in itself, or that is so merely in our estimation, fills us with horror, and we turn from its agent without waiting to listen to the plea which his ignorance could make to our mercy. In our ripened years, supposing our judgment to have ripened also, when all the insidious temptations that misguided him, and all the disadvantages that he has labored under, perhaps-from his birth, are apparent to us — it is then, and not till then, that our indignation at the crime is lost in our pity of the man.”

  • I should share that I don't want to suggest compassion is all "bad" by any means. Cultivating compassion can produce very positive results. I have spent some time doing this and can attest to the value of it. I've worked with Amnesty International and Tzu Chi for instance, both of which help end the suffering of people from human rights abuses and natural disasters, etc. It is a wonderful feeling to do compassionate work, a powerful connection with one's fellow human beings. When you help someone that is hurting, it is a deep, heartfelt pleasure! There was a time earlier in my life when I didn't have much compassion at all. For anyone, really. That to me now seems cold and "Stoic".

  • I think Don is coming from the perspective I assumed to be true, that pity and compassion mean pretty much exactly the same thing.

    I need to read the etymology of pity

    But after reading some of the Nietzsche material and hearing Scott and Kalosyni say that they consider them to be different as informed by their Buddhist reading, there seems to be more going on than I understood.

    We're probably going to have a situation where our goal of articulating the proper view of compassion, or the role of compassion in Epicurus, requires some careful explanation.

    Lest it sound like a word game, the reason for the discussion is making sure that suffering is understood as something to work to eliminate, not something to nurse along as a pet doe improper motives, such as excusing us from taking action to seek pleasure or eliminate the pain that can be eliminated.

    I get the sense that in that direction is where the criticism of pity lies, and it is justified, but that there is an entirely different and proper role for compassion.

    And on this score, as in several others we will definitely run into, we may need to be careful against reading too much into Frances Wrights interpretation.

    Last comment would be that it seems to me that in modern usage pretty much everyone sees "compassion" as a virtue. However that does not seem to be the case with "pity" which seems to carry other and varying meaning.

  • Is it fair to say that compassion derives from something more closely akin to "with feeling"? That would be easier for me to understand as a word that is more uniformly to be endorsed than "piety"

  • Thinking about the drawback of pity, I remember reading about some of the failures in Mother Theresa's hospice.


    Fox conceded that the regimen he observed included "cleanliness, the tending of wounds and sores, and loving kindness", but critiqued the sisters' "spiritual approach" to managing pain: "I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics. Along with the neglect of diagnosis, the lack of good analgesia marks Mother Theresa's approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer."

    I think there are some times when pity can even encourage passivity.

  • I tend to avoid the word "compassion" altogether. It's etymology is sticky. The word is rooted in ecclesiastical Latin, and specifically alludes to the "co-suffering" of the Christ with the rest of humanity. Additionally, since "compassion" (or "co-suffering") necessarily includes the idea of "suffering", I think the word is antithetical to the Epicurean goal. A wise person would not contribute to their own suffering by accepting the same punishment as someone else; rather, a wise person would direct their efforts toward trying to remedy the situation, or risk their life to rescue a friend in need. I think our interests would be better served by employing "sympathy" or "empathy" instead of "compassion".

  • I'm also partially splitting hairs, in that sym- (Gk.) and com- (Lat.) mean nearly the same thing, and -pathos (Gk.) and passion (Lat.) are directly related. However, the -pathos (in "sympathy") links directed to a word that Epicurus, himself employed to refer to one of the three criteria of knowledge. Whereas, hundreds of years later in Italy, the idea of "passion", linguistically, was developing parallel to the Christian myth, which lead to a different historical connotation.

    Noting the slight different between feeling as judgments of pleasure versus pain as opposed to passion as an undesirable emotional disturbance helps highlight what I propose to be the Epicurean rejection of the idea of unconditional pity. It also helps illuminate the idea of an "untroubled being" (KD1) and its incompatibility with kharisi (or "care"). A being that is not weak will not weaken itself; it will empower those around it to achieve a similar state of robust security.

  • I suspect that what is going on here is that there are significant differences between "pity" and "compassion" even though we tend to use them interchangeably

    You're right, Cassius. Don has given a link to the etymology of pity directly above. For compassion, see this

  • I tend to avoid the word "compassion" altogether. It's etymology is sticky. The word is rooted in ecclesiastical Latin, and specifically alludes to the "co-suffering" of the Christ with the rest of humanity.

    Agree, that's part of the history/origination of the word. But that's very old history. It doesn't mean that in today's usage. Words change in meaning over time and there is no other word that can replace it today and have the same meaning. Pity and empathy and sympathy just don't fill the bill (and most folks don't know the history of all this anyway).

    since "compassion" (or "co-suffering") necessarily includes the idea of "suffering", I think the word is antithetical to the Epicurean goal. A wise person would not contribute to their own suffering by accepting the same punishment as someone else; rather, a wise person would direct their efforts toward trying to remedy the situation

    I can totally understand your perspective Nate, as this seems counter-intuitive. But I have lived through this and can honestly attest to the fact that cultivating compassion can be a very positive thing. This is an example of accepting some pain (the extent to which we can take on the pain of someone else, limited) to gain at least 2 greater pleasures 1) a very powerful pleasure of helping someone, and 2) more broadly the pleasure of deep connection with people. This is very meaningful work. Enjoying the good fortune of a friend for instance, is a great thing, but if you help a friend out when they are truly suffering, the connection is much deeper and more powerful. Same with non-friends (in fact sometimes friends are made this way!)

    That said, compassion CAN be problematic - it depends on the details. One can become overwhelmed by compassion (we've all heard of this among health care workers during this pandemic, as just one example). Also some persons are so sensitive (or even have outright medical/psychological issues) that most any effort at compassion could be debilitating or even dangerous!

  • Another thing I've found resulting from developing compassion is a more fair assessment of others' intentions. You know how we might go too late through a traffic light and say to ourselves "Damn! That was a red light I just went through!" Whereas when we are sitting at a red light and someone flies through the other way we say "Damn that guy is a f***g jerk!" There is a bit of tendency to assume bad intentions for others, and to think our intentions are good. Well, at least for me. Compassion has helped me more often give people the benefit of the doubt or at least be more open to them. I sort of gained a perspective like "we're all in this together". During childhood I (short story) had some amount of trauma. Only many years later I became capable of telling my mother that I loved her. It wasn't because she or history or anything else was changed. It was me who changed. I was only able to do this because of developing compassion. My heart just got a little "bigger" or whatever. Sorry, that's kind of the Grinch story there I totally bumped into that corny reference apologies lol

  • I should add to that last post, to clarify one thing - when I could say that to my mother, I felt GOOD. I didn't just feel like "virtuous" or something. I had a release of a lot of internal turmoil and was at peace and have been since then about it. That was a true pleasure there, for me.